London’s Liverpool Street station redevelopment: on the wrong track?
Proposing artificial light, a concourse one floor away from the platforms and the partial demolition of a listed building, a £1.5bn plan to redevelop this historic London railway terminus seems ill-conceived, even with Herzog & de Meuron on board
Liverpool Street station in London, grand old Victorian terminus, one of the busiest in the country by footfall – honoured by a place on the Monopoly board – plus the adjoining former Great Eastern hotel, where the vampire-hunter Van Helsing stayed in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and now called the Andaz, are, depending on your point of view, soon most likely to be either transformed or wrecked. “A world-class gateway to our great capital,” says the consortium that wants to build nearly 1 million sq feet (93,000 sq metres) of commercial accommodation above the station concourse and the old hotel. “Crass and unsustainable,” says the Liverpool Street Station Campaign, a coalition of eight heritage organisations set up to oppose the plans. “It’s like putting a giant clown’s hat on top of St Paul’s Cathedral,” says Griff Rhys Jones, the group’s president.
The £1.5bn proposal, recently submitted for planning approval after a not very informative public information campaign, is designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, famous for Tate Modern, the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing and the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg. Their designs would replace the listed Victorian-style steel-and-glass structure over the main concourse with an opaque ceiling, artificially lit. Hope Square, a public space containing a memorial to the Kindertransport, would disappear and the sculpture be relocated. Above the concourse, the square and the eight-storey listed hotel building, blocks containing offices and hotel accommodation, rising up to 16 additional storeys, would be built – a roof extension, in other words, double the height of the building it surmounts, and several times the volume.
A feature of Liverpool Street station is that the concourse and platforms are lower than the surrounding pavements, such that you descend into it. The proposal now is to insert a new deck at street level from which you can go down escalators, lifts and stairs to catch your trains. Improvements are also promised to the adjoining underground station, including seven lifts that will make its platforms wheelchair-accessible. The Victorian train shed over the tracks and platforms will be kept and spruced up.
The proposals have been put forward by Sellar, a property company with a previous record of putting very large buildings over main terminals. The company was responsible for the Shard at London Bridge, and its 440,000 sq feet, 17-storey Paddington Square – a cubic structure in white steel and glass next to Paddington station that was designed, like the Shard, by Renzo Piano – is nearing completion. Both projects also came with some improvements to the public experience of the stations. The latter was achieved only after a previous proposal by Sellar and Piano, for a 72-storey, 254-metre (830ft) skyscraper at odds with a relatively low-rise part of London, was withdrawn in the face of fierce opposition. Their Liverpool Street plans probably come from the same playbook, whereby they propose an unfeasibly vast development, justify it with station upgrades and then settle with the planners for something slightly less conspicuous.
With its partners in the Liverpool Street project – the station’s owner, Network Rail, and the Hong Kong-based public transport operator MTR – Sellar says that its plans will “address chronic accessibility, capacity and overcrowding issues to transform the passenger experience”. It also promises a 25-metre, four-lane outdoor swimming pool – the “City lido” – and a new “public realm” distributed about some of the project’s upper levels. So the questions, to be considered by the planning committee of the City of London, are these: are the changes to the historic buildings acceptable in heritage terms, and can they be justified on the basis of the public benefits that may come with them, and whatever design magic Herzog & de Meuron may bring to the project?
The answer to the first question is surely no. Older readers may remember the giant animated foot in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which regularly crushed people and buildings beneath it. The visual effect of the new blocks on the pinnacled and gabled old hotel will probably be similar. It is not usually best practice to demolish the most significant parts of a listed building, as would be the case with the concourse roof. Sellar and their partners point out that this structure was completed only in 1991, as part of a comprehensive refurbishment, but it has become an integral and uplifting element of the station.
Nor is it obvious that the station is so dire, or the proposed changes so beneficial, as to require such a drastic makeover. At present, you get a direct line of sight from platform gates to the street and to the underground station, such that it’s clear where you need to go. Even in rush hour, it’s usually possible to get around easily. It’s also a joy to pass through the cathedral-sized concourse, especially when the sunshine manages to get through the grime of its somewhat neglected roof. The proposed new ceiling will cut out this light, while the new deck will reduce its internal height.
Under the new proposals you would enter an undercroft, impeded by more columns and escalators than at present, with those lines of sight lost. It’s true that the new upper level will increase the total amount of floor area, but as people usually like to be near the gates for their departing trains they’ll probably congregate downstairs. Other stations where concourses are placed at a higher level than platforms, such as Birmingham New Street, tend not to be the most joyous in the land.
Scepticism is in order about the promised elevated “public realm”, as such spaces in previous City developments – on top of the Walkie-Talkie skyscraper and on James Stirling’s No 1 Poultry, opposite the Bank of England – have been subject to creeping corporate takeover. They’re unlikely to be the sort of places, as the threatened Hope Square is now, where anyone feels welcome at any time. Sellar promises that use of the lido will be “at prices comparable to similar council-run facilities”, but there is no guarantee that they will remain so in perpetuity.
There would be some genuine benefits, including more ticket gates, achieved by reducing the number of “grab-and-go” food outlets, which would reduce bottlenecks at rush hour. Better wheelchair access is needed and welcome. The old Victorian structure is tired and in need of smartening up. Hope Square is neglected, the Kindertransport memorial a resting place for cups from a nearby McDonald’s. But all these issues could be addressed without “smothering”, as Rhys Jones put it, the old buildings. Some of them are matters of maintenance and management, the normal responsibility of Network Rail. It shouldn’t require 1 million sq feet of redevelopment to get the company to do its everyday job.
There’s reason to believe that some of the people responsible for this project could achieve something magnificent. Herzog & de Meuron are among the world’s best architects, skilful with commercial and cultural buildings – their cylindrical residential skyscraper at Canary Wharf, called One Park Drive, is among the best of its kind. A few promising moments can be glimpsed in their proposals for Liverpool Street: some intriguingly sculpted vaults and passages, a public entrance that nicely repurposes the baroque ballroom of the former Great Eastern hotel.
Sellar’s Piano-designed Paddington Square looks crisp and elegant. So it may be tempting for the authorities who will consider the Liverpool Street application – the City of London, the mayor of London, potentially the housing and communities secretary, Michael Gove – to treat the plans, as happened at Paddington, as the opening play in a haggle leading to a slightly less massive development. The Liverpool Street plans look so deeply ill-conceived, though, that it’s hard to see where a compromise can be found.